The actors' boycott of the new Ariel cultural center received a boost yesterday with over 150 academics and several dozen authors and artists signing letters in their support.

In the academics' letter, released yesterday, over 150 faculty members from universities across the country vowed not to lecture or participate in any discussions in settlements, and voiced support for the theater artists who have said they would refuse to perform in the West Bank city. "We will not take part in any kind of cultural activity beyond the Green Line, take part in discussions and seminars, or lecture in any kind of academic setting in these settlements," the academics wrote.

"We support the theater artists refusing to play in Ariel, express our appreciation of their public courage and thank them for bringing the debate on settlements back into the headlines," the petition said. "We'd like to remind the Israeli public that like all settlements, Ariel is also in occupied territory. If a future peace agreement with the Palestinian authorities puts Ariel within Israel's borders, then it will be treated like any other Israeli town."

Signatories of the academic petition included Zeev Sternhell and Yael Sternhell, Nissim Calderon, Anat Biletzki, Ziva Ben-Porat, Yaron Ezrachi, Aeyal Gross, Shlomo Sand, Dan Rabinowitz, Neve Gordon and Oren Yiftachel.

A separate letter, signed by a number of well-known authors and artists, is expected to be published in the coming days. Signatories already include writers David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz; author Sami Michael, writer and editor Ilana Hammerman; sculptor Dani Caravan; poet Dori Manor; filmmakers Hagai Levi and Ibtisam Mara'ana; and actress Orly Silbersatz.

"We, the undersigned, express our support and solidarity with the theater artists refusing to perform in Ariel. Freedom of creation and freedom of opinion are the cornerstones of a free and democratic society. Not too long ago, we marked the 43rd anniversary of the Israeli occupation. Legitimization and acceptance of the settler enterprise cause critical damage to Israel's chances of achieving a peace accord with its Palestinian neighbors."

Novelist A.B. Yehoshua told Haaretz that the boycott was "not of the residents of Ariel, but of the city, located in the heart of Palestinian territory. If they'd invite me to lecture there, I wouldn't have come. It's been a while since I went there except for political discussions. I wouldn't go there to entertain people."

Ariel mayor Ron Nachman said that just as he opposed the boycott threats by the Im Tirtzu against Ben-Gurion University for its alleged leftist bias, he equally rejected the scholars' petition. "When faculty members in universities supported by the state sign a petition to boycott Ariel, it's no longer my problem, but the problem of the education minister, the Knesset Education Committee, and the entire political system. It's not about academic freedom. There's no difference between Prof. Sternhell and Im Tirtzu. Their calls for boycott are tantamount to incitement to rebellion."

Yigal Cohen-Orgad, chancellor of the Ariel University Center, said that "stupid behavior seems to attract academic stupidity. Just last week we had an international scientific conference [at Ariel] with scientists from 34 states. If there's a vocal minority stupid enough to say it won't cooperate with us, they are quite welcome."

Meanwhile, some 300 persons gathered yesterday outside the Habimah Theater in Tel Aviv to protest its decision to perform in Ariel when its new cultural center opens this November.

Participating in the protest were MKs Dov Khenin (Hadash ), Nitzan Horowitz and Haim Oron (Meretz ), actors Hana Meron, Oded Kotler, playwright Yehoshua Sobol, former MKs Yael Dayan and Zahava Gal-On, and former editor-in-chief of Maariv Doron Galezer.

"We are here not only to bolster those actors [who said they will refuse to perform beyond the Green Line], but to support the right of people to express their opinion, not to take part in the occupation festival. We will not participate in the festivities of Ariel," said Yariv Oppenheimer, head of Peace Now.

Yehoshual Sobol said: "When society attacks artists, it is a symptom of its unwillingness to look at the mirror. They say we receive money from the government. The truth be said, the portion of the government [funding] is minimal. If they threaten us with budgetary cuts, then take a look at how much they give. The theater will not collapse, but will become healthier."

A counter-demonstration of about 15 persons held up signs announcing: "You are Traitors."